Being a Tower Hamlets councillor – the parts I don’t want to forget

I’ve written a few things about aspects of Tower Hamlets politics that need to change – I am very grateful to the local people for wiping out the various independent/post Respect/post Lutfur Rahman groupings in the election on Thursday.  I very much hope that the 42/45 Labour councillors who have just been elected will hold together, focus on the needs of the people that need us most, not thuggish power play, and, where they need to, disagree agreeably.  

Public service is a huge honour, and there are parts of being a Tower Hamlets councillor that I don’t want to forget.  So I have written some up.  

My first casework.  A man who I saw often during my by election campaign, who sat on the wall outside the school gate to pick up his children every day. He started to bring notes asking for help, and telling me parts of his story – he couldn’t say very much.   I visited his home and met his wife.  She was Bengali, he was white, and neither of their families supported their marriage.  They moved to the countryside so that they could be together.  One day, on his way to pick his children up from school, he was beaten up by racist thugs, and suffered a brain injury.  They moved back to Tower Hamlets so their families could support with the children.   Having discussed their options with them, I persuaded him to go to treatment to help with his walking and talking, advocated for him to get a council home so and his wife and children could escape from their grim, damp, mouldy rented flat, and eventually he managed to get work.  Their joy when they were able to have another baby.  The last time I knocked on his door and asked him how things were, his biggest issue was that his sink was blocked.  What a victory.  

After a canvassing session when I had just been selected to stand in Mile End East, a group of us went to the Britannia pub, to revel in the joys of Garyoke the Karaoke Blokey.  I sang Valerie.  At 11pm the curtains were closed and the ash trays came out.  I went over to the bar, and asked the landlord if he would sign my nomination papers. “Oh no love, sorry, we don’t get involved in that politics”.. I was crushed.  “Only joking – where do you want me to sign?”. What an honour – nominated to stand for election by Ronnie Golds.  

Years later, the day of Ronnie Gold’s funeral, the Bede estate was swept perfectly clean in his honour.  A hearse and procession of black cars with flowers spelling out his name.  A gin and tonic on his coffin. Their sons and wider family there to support his wife Margaret, their mum.  A spread at the pub afterwards, with faces old and new.  

 When I decided to stand for selection, I asked Bernie Cameron for his support.  He took me for a walk around the British estate, where he had lived for decades, and where, as the chair of the estate board, he was masterminding the regeneration.  The place was covered in scaffolding, and Bernie first described to me what was going on, and what local people still needed, then asked me a series of quick fire questions about my politics, beliefs, ways of operating and priorities.  After 20 minutes he declared “you’ll do, I’ll support you”, and he did, through the selection and election, and up until he died.  As a holocaust survivor, he had his own tragedies to live with, but he was unsentimental, uninterested in reminiscing or reflecting on his extraordinary life,  absolutely focussed on what his community needed now.  He loved the football team he coached, his children, wife, and dog Jasper.  The only other time I saw him really emotional was when I bought back a tiny menorah for him from Israel.  I sat in Bernie’s office in the Maha Centre every month to do my advice surgery – he would encourage people to come if he thought they needed to see me – I had to try and stop him shooing away people he thought were a waste of my time.  His integrity was such that he would happily be unpopular for the sake of doing what he knew was right – and he would dart and weave his way through east end community politics like the boxer he was. He was decent, kind, a grafter, a force of nature.  

Mr R who had enormous pride in his brilliant daughter – he sat in the pub most of the day, or in his living room covered in newspapers and betting slips.  He would ring me regularly to tell me about her brilliant exam results.  I recommended books for her to read.  

The morning after my by election – I went to the town hall to sign in, and very sweetly both the head of democratic services and the chief executive told me the same story about how apolitical council officers like an election with a clear result.  I got on a bus, and got off at the Burdett estate, where I had spent so much time during my campaign, and where Shiria was there with other mums picking up their children.  I stood in the middle of the playground with mothers and their kids clapping and crying and holding on to my hands and arms and clothes.  Being a Mohila councillor, and a strong voice for those women, felt important.  

 I will never forget the time I spent with families whose children had died, through knife crime, drug misuse or illness. 

Let no one underestimate the women of the Bede estate.  Revenge for a drug deal that went wrong meant groups of girls were horribly threatened, petrol chucked over them and lighters waved in their faces.  The mothers of the estate came together to demand action, and I asked them to come with me to a police ward panel meeting.  They were extraordinary.  

The women of the Burdett estate.  Bengali women who made me clothes, fed me, fought hard for improvements to their school. The women of the Black Church who sang gospel songs in the street when they heard I won in 2008.  

The kindness of Helen and Avril, making sandwiches for us all day on polling day in 2014.  

The committee of Hamlets Way mosque, who asked me to chair their AGM.  

When the children’s centre that we fought for on the Bede estate opened.  

When we agreed in cabinet to rebuild the Wellington Way GP surgery, after years of lobbying.  

The fury and frustration of third sector organisations at our first engagement event in 2015, and the buzz and energy when they realised we were serious about getting it right.

International Women’s Day with young women in Stepney talking about feminism.

The incredible science summer event at St Paul’s Way – at what used to be a failing school.  

Mr Hannan and Faruk on the British estate – always, especially in times of campaigning need.  

In 2010, a letter using forged headed paper and pretending in be from my co councillor Motin Uz-Zaman was sent through the post to every household with Muslim names – about half my ward.  It said I was a Jew, that I hated Muslims, that I wanted to shut down mosques and madrassas.  

I found out about this letter when when I was walking through my ward, and the chair of the Hamlets Way Mosque stopped me in the street.  He held my arm, and told me that he had suffered racism, that he recognised hatred when he saw it, that I should not worry and we would stand together.  With him, Motin, Faruk and Mr Hannan, my husband and my mum, we got a rebuttal direct mail out to four thousand voters within 12 hours explaining that the first letter was a fraud, and reaffirming our opposition to hatred and division.  Again, I was elected with a big majority – attempts to whip up anti semitism backfired. 

The colleagues and friends in the Labour Group and local party who fought the good fight when it wasn’t much fun.  Party staff and senior politicians who supported us, friends and family who put up with it all.  

It’s been an honour to be invited into the homes, places of worship, schools, children’s centres, community centres, hospital, youth centres – the list goes on – of this extraordinary community.  I have lived here since I first came to London when I left university.  I’m not going anywhere.

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Woman hatred in Tower Hamlets

I have been speaking and writing about misogyny in Tower Hamlets for a long time – now feels like the right time to put something more comprehensive on the record.  There is an outside chance that people might be open to thinking about experiences other than their own, and realise that action is needed.

There are some qualifications to make before getting into the substance of this.

Being a Labour councillor in Tower Hamlets has been hugely rewarding.  I would encourage anyone, women or men, to do it.

Some of what I have experienced is because I don’t duck conflict.  I stand up for what I believe, and I stand up to bullies.  I have held leadership positions.  You can be a great local councillor and hold positions in the council without being quite such a visible target.

Still, though, Labour women from all backgrounds – different ethnicities and class backgrounds, tell a very similar story when we sit down to discuss it.  We are undermined and our contributions trivialised.  We are held to account for what our partners do.    We are sexually harassed.  Many of us have experienced smears based on a fabricated private life. There are routine attempts made to intimidate us, shut us down.  This is often worse for BAME women, who have racism and cultural expectations to deal with too.

This matters, for two reasons.  One, we are the party of equality, and if we expect voters to take us seriously, we need to act with integrity ourselves.  Two, we are wasting talent.

I am writing this because I want action to be taken by our political leaders, and because there is a chance that setting out some of my own experience in black and white will help engender enough empathy to encourage action.

I am going to try to list the different types of intimidation and harassment, and give an example for each one.  There are far far more examples than I am prepared to spend the time writing up – this is a start.

Clothes.  One of my first experiences of this was in my ward, when I was leafleting a school gate during my by election. I was wearing a knee length black and pink Monsoon dress, and boots – pretty standard professional outfit.  The school was opposite a piece of grass, the other side of which, about 200 yards away, was the entrance to a mosque.  A man came over to me and starting talking to me in a language I did not understand.  He then started pointing at my legs, and when I still did not understand, he pulled at my skirt, grabbed and shook my knees, and shouted “no, no no!”.  I moved away from him and asked someone to translate.  It turned out he thought my dress was not modest, and I had offended him as he left his prayers.  Being the ultra liberal I am, I went and discussed with friends what I could wear that would not offend people, whilst still looking like myself.  That was ten years go – now I would probably report him for assault.

I have used clothes as a way to build bridges.  The next time I stood outside the mosque I covered my head, whilst caused outrage amongst some who called me a feminist sell out and fraud, but was appreciated as a gesture by others.  I enjoy dressing up in shalwar chemise for weddings and cultural events, because it is beautiful and super comfortable, and polite to my hosts.  I have only worn a sari once, for the same reason I never wear high heels – I only wear clothes I can walk in.

I have had a LOT of unsolicited advice on what I should wear to fit in in different cultural contexts. I have also been asked to tell other women what to wear – which I will not do.  The constant monitoring of how women look can become wearing.

How you look isn’t just your clothes.  I have never been thin, and local government is not a healthy lifestyle.  I have stood in lifts whilst men poked me and asked if I was pregnant, why wasn’t I pregnant, did I cook properly for my family, why not, why did I eat too much?  Men have texted around fat jokes about me as a way of gaining ground in an AGM.

Some men in the Labour Party think women’s bodies are there for their use, regardless of what the woman wants.  I have pulled men out of a crowded meeting room where I saw them groping a young woman who could not get away..  I have had to hit, pummel and scream to get a car stopped when a member giving me a lift home tried to take me somewhere else.  I have sat in a pub with Labour men chatting about prostitutes they have used.

Then there is the straightforward intimidation.  Phone calls after a Labour Group meeting to let me know someone would be round to “finish me” if I didn’t stop asking questions.  A man who wanted to come off a committee when I was chief whip, called my mobile absolutely constantly for days, screamed threats at me in person.  Got people to follow me home and put notes in my pocket with the addresses of my family members.  Told me it was not just my own safety I needed to worry about.  Another man who tried to make me feel responsible for the lies and rumours he spread about my friends – if I stopped challenging him, he would stop smearing them.  Smears about me, trying to stoke up anti semitism against me based on my Hebrew first name, claims I had strings of lesbian lovers, lies about financial probity, lies about lies about lies.

Then the stuff every woman has to deal with, all the time.  Being ignored or treated like an infant in meetings, your ideas implemented once they have been lifted by others.  Ignored if you are too quiet, demonised if you are too loud.

This is why there are fewer women in leadership positions than men, why more women stand down, earlier than men, why we have to scrabble to meet Labour’s ⅓ quota.  Many women I know have had it much worse than me.

It is possible to get it sorted.  Some of the worst offenders are well known.  Senior leaders in the Labour Party can stand up to them, not pander to them.  There is some personal support offered by informal networks within the party, which is positive – but we will only see change we we support one another to call it out, not just cope with it.  We need to stop offering training and support to women, and start tackling the hate filled men who are poisoning our politics.

There are lots of reasons why this is not taken seriously.

One is that it is much easier to make deals with bullies than to stand up to them.  The downfall of Lutfur Rahman is an opportunity to do things differently.  I hope we take it.

Another, is that some men who have had their own battles to deal with, dislike being asked to support women’s equality.  Their own lives, the injustices they have suffered, matter more.  More women may mean less space for people like them.  Very many men have deep rooted issues with women who have something to say for themselves, who don’t do what they are told.  They need to get over it.

I wrote a rant

Published on Facebook on the 18th August, 2017

I wrote a rant.

It still a shock when you are in the Labour Party, you thought you shared values with your male colleagues, then you realise, even whilst you campaign together for an end to poverty being a barrier to aspiration and achievement, there is still an assumption that gender is a legitimate ceiling to ambition.

When you hear that you have “sharp elbows” need to “talk less”, “shut up”, that you are “stupid”, “who does she think she is”, “what does she think she looks like”, “is she pregnant” “why isn’t she pregnant” “why doesn’t she have children – what is wrong with her?”, “why is she fat” “hahaha she is so fat we could sort out the AGM with a football match and put her in goal, nothing would get past her”, “You can’t wear that”, “who the f*ck does she think she is”, “why won’t she do what she is told”, “she should keep her head down if she knows what is good for her”, “I know that ……. (insert name of random bloke) is really controlling her”, “I’ll teach her a lesson”, “watch yourself”, “I know where you live” “I’m going to finish you, and finish your family”, “I’ll skin her alive if she doesn’t do what she is told”, and you know your male peers don’t have to deal with any of it. Sexism in the Labour Party can get a bit exhausting. In person, not twitter. Day after day, year after year.

“It’s hard to tackle intimidation of women – the political dynamics are complex”.

“Are you sure she was telling the truth?”.

Men bitter because of “tokenism”, when they deserve little on merit. Men slapping each other on the back for their brilliant ideas, nicked from a woman they ignored earlier in the meeting.

Sexism is an issue across political groups, across society, but we all join the Labour Party because we want to make the world a better place. Then we realise that, for many men, political leaders can only be men, community leaders can only be men, power can only be held by men.

Making the world a better place seems an unlikely ambition, if we can’t deal with this.

 

my resignation email to Labour Group

I wrote a long email to my Labour councillor colleagues when I resigned from the cabinet a few months ago.  There is some misinformation going around about what it said, so I am publishing it.

 

Sent on the 8th August, 2017

Dear group,

 

 

I am writing to let you know that I have resigned from the cabinet today. I have got a new job, and the hours aren’t possible.

 

I will of course continue to support the Labour group and leadership, as I have done through my time as a councillor.

 

I have also written to Mile End members today to let them know that I will not be restanding to be a councillor in May.

 

It is time to make space for others to come through.

 

I have loved being a councillor for Mile End since 2008, and the people there have taught me a huge amount. I am very proud of the children’s centre on Joseph street, the outstanding St Paul’s Way secondary school and excellent primary school places created by expanding Wellington Way and Stebon and building a new primary on Burdett, rapidly improving GP surgeries, three new mosques, and the many new social homes that have been built in the ward, all of which I have supported and shaped in different ways.

 

I am most proud of the work I have done to support residents to make their own voices heard during this rapid time of change in our community. Advocating for the people of Mile End will be my top priority for my remaining months as a councillor.

 

I am very grateful to the Labour Group for the roles you have elected me to since 2008, including chief whip, deputy leader and leader, and am particularly grateful for your support in the very tough year after we lost the 2014 mayor election, lost our majority, and then led the political response to the DCLG commissioners.

 

I am proud of the work I led in cabinet, including on the third sector strategy, creating a new process for grants, holding together our family of schools, and putting young people’s voice at the heart of the youth service. I wish I could have done more on children’s social care. I am glad to have worked with the local NHS in recent months on pushing for the local, partnership focus that we know delivers for Tower Hamlets.

 

 

I stood as a councillor because I was appalled by the perversion of politics championed by George Galloway, and wanted to fight for Labour values of equality, democracy and mutual respect in how we did our politics. I spent years fighting the corruption and cronyism of Lutfur Rahman. I still hope that we can do better in how we treat one another, and in putting values into practice in our decision making.

 

I am no longer willing to live with the endemic, vicious misogyny many of us experience. That misogyny manifests itself as “jokes”, undermining and belittling, through to harassment, intimidation and threats. It is about silencing, coercion and control. I have had enough.

 

Ten years of doing battle on these fronts is enough, and I look forward to supporting the next generation of Labour candidates to take Tower Hamlets forward.

People come from all over the world to make better lives for themselves and their families in Tower Hamlets, and it is our job to build their ambition and hard work into a shared future. I’ll be cheering you on.

 

Best wishes,

 

Rachael

May Day – Bangladeshi Workers Council

Yesterday I spoke at a MayDay celebration organised by the Bangladeshi Workers Council.  There were strong speeches from across the British trade union and Bangladeshi left.

We have been through a lot in Tower Hamlets politics, and I know that one of the aims of the organisers of the event was to renew our connection with our political roots and purpose.

When I spoke, I said something about what I have learnt from the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets about how to do politics.

The first, is that we stand up for ourselves when under threat. That is the lesson of Cable Street and of Altab Ali, as well as the lesson of the match women, dockers, suffragettes and labour movement stars through the generations.  It is why the neo fascist EDL or Britain First have to be dealt with decisively by the police – because this community has had to defend itself against fascists before, and will again, if authorities fail.  That cultural memory stands behind our resilience to the 2011 riots – our community policed itself.  It is why east end politics can be fractious, but it is how a poor and diverse area has made progress.

The second is more specific to Bangladeshi culture.  When there is a tension within the political family, a senior or trusted individual can bring people together and ask them to find a way of making peace, through a structured open dialogue where each have the opportunity to have their say, and the person leading the conversation seeks to find common ground.  “Deal making” is often the result of deeply rooted desire to avoid conflict through negotiation.

It is this tradition that I hope we can learn from as we move forward in Tower Hamlets.  We have been through a tough time in our politics, and the wounds are still visible.  We need more open and frank conversations, to understand one another better, to move Tower Hamlets forward.

Our Father

There was a lot of publicity before Christmas about the decision of cinemas to ban the Church of England advert based on the Lord’s Prayer, and various of my friends wrote very well about the importance, radicalism and simplicity of that text.

My new year’s resolution is to be better at “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”.

The discipline of that line is that to forgive, you have to understand, and empathy, when you are angry or hurt, is difficult.

I have always tried to maintain this discipline – I think Tower Hamlets politics would have broken me by now if I had remained angry about every threat, insult or lie. It is sometimes harder when the pain is more personal. I will do better.

Inventing the individual

There is something liberating about reading a book which explains something you had on some level always known.

“Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism”, by Larry Siedentop, has just done exactly that.

He sets out how the radical message of Christianity, that we are all of equal value before God, was built on through Paul and Augustine and many others through the ages, until it shaped the way the Catholic church reformed, with a representative structure that recognised that church authority lay with the collective membership, not just the Pope. That then informed that way in which nation states in Europe were constituted, and gave us the framework for western liberalism – equal status leads to the assertion of natural law, basic human rights, and then the case for self government.

The importance of free will and human agency in Christianity also led to secularism – because Christianity should teach us to value every individual, and individuals must choose their own faith, nation states created space for a public sphere where those who had not chosen Christianity could live freely alongside those who had. This is important because, too often, the European tolerance of others faiths is portrayed as a lack of commitment to faith. For some, it may be, but peaceful co existence with and respect for those of all faiths and none is not a compromise for Christianity, it is at its heart. Love your neighbour, who ever they are.

This book is an extraordinary account of the history of how Christian theology shapes how we live.